Guitarists-- what does the whammy bar do?

I read the wiki on it, and on a basic level, I understand that it allows you to produce the same sort of sound you get by bending strings (I’m not a guitarist, and the only example I can think of off the top of my head of this is what Kurt Cobain does when he sings the word “fly” in Lake of Fire-- which I just discovered was originally by the Meat Puppets). But if I understand correctly, that effect was produced by bending the strings with the left hand, whereas wiki says that the vibrato effects were produced by using the picking hand.

So how do these effects differ? What else can you do with whammy bar that you can’t do with just your hands?

You can search Youtube and find a bunch of demonstrations.

The whammy bar increases or decreases tension on the strings, thereby raising or lowering the pitch. The correct term is vibrato, though Leo Fender opted to call his device a tremolo (which is actually a volume related, not a pitch related, effect).

The tremolo or whammy bar, is used to vary the tension on the strings, changing pitch and other vibration aspects. If you’re a fan of forced harmonics, I suggest watching this, as it is a clinic on all things whammy bar, as well as all things forced harmonic. Maybe. I’m just a drummer, but I likes me some whammy bar stuff, and Pantera.

It releases tension on the strings, basically putting slack into them, which decreases the pitch, and causing the “diving” effect, as well as the exaggerated “wa wa wa wa,” vibrato sound you can get by repeatedly depressing and releasing the arm. You can also get a little bit of increase in pitch and tension by pulling back on the arm instead of pushing down, but that’s more of a discovered effect than a designed one.

You often hear it incorrectly called a “tremolo” bar, but it’s not. It’s a vibrato bar.

I use it for chord vibrato…as in what this lead guitar player does.

Rockabilly music uses it a lot, I think Pulp Fiction had a few tunes in it like that.

I don’t use a bar, but I re-manufactured a paddle that sits behind the bridge, cause the bar was just useless to me, this way I can palm it and play at the same time.

Then of course there’s Eddie…

and the master…

What they all said.

Lots to geek out on regarding whammy’s and their history in guitars and guitar playing, but I suspect that is not what the OP is looking for - just an overview of the basic function.

They started off providing a little lilt to playing - Rockabilly players would slowly push, release, push, release just to put a little vibrato on the end of the chord. That was the original intent - 'till EVH and others started using them for dive-bombs. EVH really innovated on the whammy bar for stunt use - play super fast and then, as a climax, drop your picking hand hard onto the whammy - listen to the end of pretty much every song on Van Halen’s first album and you can hear that.

The current master of the whammy is (no surprise if you have read my fanwank posts about him in other threads) is Jeff Beck. He grew up on rockabilly so can do the gentle stuff, was doing dive-bombs next to Hendrix before EVH was big - but what he does that no one else really does is use the whammy for long, multi-note passages (called ***legato ***in music speak). He picks the note and let’s it ring, then depresses the bar in pre-determined spots to sound specific notes. The level of mastery required to do this is mind-boggling.

See herefor a clip where you can get a sense for what he does…

[Ahem] Are we forgetting about Jimi?

Nope - sorry; good point. Hendrix’ broke open the door of using the whammy as a “sound generator” and feedback manipulator (as opposed to a bit of spice on a note).

Some guitarists like to play a strat but they put a block of wood next to the trem so it does not move. Eric Clapton is 1 example.

Since no one’s mentioned it yet, bending strings only increases the tension, hence increases the pitch.

There was a big jump in whammy bar technology in the early eighties (or around then) with the Floyd Rose style. Early trems were OK with very mild changes in pitch but vigorous use would often result in tuning problems. With the newer “locking” vibrato systems you could push the bar until the strings go totally slack and be (reasonably) confident that the strings would still be in tune when you released. The tradeoff was complexity and the amount of time needed to change strings. An experienced setup person can get a vintage style trem to perform fairly close to a locking trem.

Not if you pull back on it.

So, is the whammy bar responsible for the “dives” that John McGeoch is playing in this PIL song, “Seattle?” It’s my favorite bit.

(at about 1:16)

Can’t hear it on my laptop-speakers-only situation at home. I can try tomorrow…

Pulling back also increases pitch actually.

Can’t hear any ‘dives’ in that linked video.

I think ZenBeam was addressing the OP’s question of what a whammy bar can do that your fingers can’t, i.e. decrease the pitch.

Yes, but you can bend a string without picking it, then pluck the string and un-bend while the note sounds. The effect certainly isn’t a dive-bomb, but it is a note that starts higher and then descends.

wrong account

Hmmm…I don’t hear anything at 1:16 or near it that sounds much different than the guitar going on in the rest of the song. No whammy bar stuff I can hear that. What sound are you talking about exactly?